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Jazz and the Mob: A History

The music’s lengthy entanglement with organized crime isn’t a sidebar; it’s the main story

Earl Hines 1947
Earl Hines in gangster mode, 1947 (photo: William P. Gottlieb Collection/Library of Congress)

When master pianist Earl “Fatha” Hines was in the midst of a 12-year residency at the Grand Terrace nightclub on the South Side of Chicago, he worked for the mob. Everyone knew that the club was owned by a consortium that included notorious Prohibition-era mobster Alphonse Capone, who owned a piece of at least five clubs in and around the city.

As Hines achieved stardom at the Grand Terrace (his shows were aired on national radio) he adhered to a policy of the three monkeys, i.e., hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil. He heard mob hits being discussed, held money for gangsters, and when the St. Valentine’s Day massacre was engineered by Capone on February 14, 1927, Fatha Hines wondered if he was in business with mass murders. As he said years later in an interview, “There’s not a single big name of the show world—Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong—who hasn’t at one time or another had contact with the Syndicates,” adding ruefully, “The racketeers owned me too.”

The type of relationship to which Hines was alluding began in the earliest years of jazz and continued at least into the 1980s. Mobsters owned nightclubs and used them as money laundering operations. They sank their fangs into every aspect of the business: recording, jukebox concessions, promotion, and management. The business of jazz was one way the mob franchised itself around the U.S., operating not only in the legendary jazz cities—New Orleans, New York, Kansas City, and Chicago—but also in midsized cities like St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Denver, and on the West Coast.

Many of the most renowned musicians became entangled in this historical narrative. Along with Hines and the musicians he cited, Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller, Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole, Count Basie, Charles Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie, Betty Carter, Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, and others have written or spoken about their run-ins with gangsters. Throughout much of jazz history, managing the intersection of the criminal underworld and a career in jazz was a skill required of many of the biggest names in the business.

Over the years, jazz historians, educators, and critics have developed a myopic attitude toward this history. Though the subject has occasionally been broached in popular entertainment, most notably in movies directed by two of the 20th century’s most renowned filmmakers (Robert Altman’s Kansas City and Francis Coppola’s The Cotton Club), in the jazz world it is mostly a topic that has been repressed. Starting in the 1980s, cultural mavens of jazz made a conscious effort to lift it from its shady business roots as “vice music” into more esteemed settings such as concert halls and museums. Jazz at Lincoln Center in Manhattan, the SFJazz Center in San Francisco, and many other renowned institutions around the U.S. were designed to, among other things, elevate the reputation of jazz and save it from the gutter.

At the time, this arguably constituted a much-needed recognition of the music’s status as America’s most durable art form. But something got lost in the transition. Choosing to soft-pedal the history of jazz as a source of economic plunder by organized crime—and also, for a time, a source of patronage by underworld figures that allowed the music to evolve and grow—diminishes its role in the American saga.

Promoters of jazz need not be ashamed: Organized crime is as central to the American narrative as baseball and apple pie. The fact that jazz has been entangled with the mob is not incidental, it is central to the discussion. You cannot understand America without acknowledging this arrangement as part of a grand capitalist pact.

Jelly Roll Morton at Hilma Burt's
Hilma Burt’s bordello in Storyville, New Orleans, with Jelly Roll Morton at the piano (photo: Louisiana State Museum)

It’s a quirk of history that around the same time the music was first taking shape, organized crime in America was also in its incubation stage. In New Orleans, where jazz began (though today some jazz historians take issue with this fact), the Sicilian mafia emerged in the early years of the 20th century. The Matranga crime family, an offshoot of the Stuppaggieri, a faction of the mafia based in Monreale, Palermo, were among the first club owners to hire young Louis Armstrong. In his memoir, Armstrong describes working at a club called Matranga’s, located in Black Storyville, the city’s renowned vice district.

Armstrong preferred working in clubs that were “connected,” both to the underworld and the larger matrix of political and law-enforcement corruption that made the underworld possible. Satchmo believed that the mob provided protection for a musician. Once, he was told by an underworld figure he respected, “Louis, [to survive in the jazz world] you need to get yourself a white man that will put his hand on your shoulder and say, ‘This is my nigger.’” Substitute the word “gangster” for “white man” and it’s clear where Armstrong stood on the issue.

Not all musicians accepted a mobster-controlled universe as the status quo. Jelly Roll Morton resented giving money from his music—including written compositions and, later, recordings—to what he called the Syndicate. Unlike Armstrong, Morton insisted on playing in clubs that were not mob-affiliated, which may have led to the unfortunate incident of his being attacked and stabbed while on the bandstand at Washington, D.C.’s Music Box in 1938. Had the club been protected by the mob, it is unlikely that such an attack would have occurred.

The mob wasn’t made up solely of Italian mafiosi. In the case of its association with jazz, it also involved club owners, managers, business agents, record company representatives, and more. It involved people within the system—political bosses, elected representatives, and cops—who were “on the take” in one manner or another, so as to facilitate the relationship.

The dynamics of all this spread from New Orleans to Kansas City, Chicago, New York, and other places where the business of jazz took hold. As has been widely covered in books and movies, this relationship reached an apotheosis of sorts during the years of Prohibition. The Roaring Twenties saw the rapid ascension of jazz in the culture. There were small jazz groups in virtually every speakeasy and large bands in mob-owned clubs such as the Sunset Café in Chicago, Cuban Gardens in Kansas City, the Plantation in St. Louis, the 500 Club in Atlantic City, and the Midnight Ranch in Denver.

Organized crime is as central to the American narrative as baseball and apple pie. You cannot understand America without acknowledging this arrangement as part of a grand capitalist pact.

The Cotton Club in Harlem, owned by notorious Irish American gangster Owney “Killer” Madden, is remembered not only for its floorshows (which were spectacular) or its Jim Crow door policy (which was deplorable), but for its music. Duke Ellington and His Orchestra took over as the house band in 1927, and jazz would never be the same. In the Ellington era, the relationship between jazz and the underworld moved from being solely a business accommodation to being a seductive and naughty cross-pollination at the heart of the music.

“The episodes of the gangster era were never a healthy subject for discussion,” Ellington wrote in Music Is My Mistress (1973), his charming though elusive memoir. When it came to the mob, Ellington preferred to let his music speak for him. Throughout his career, but especially in the 1920s and 1930s, he wasn’t just creating music from the underworld, he was making music that commented on the underworld—music that reveled in the rapscallion nature of human beings vastly enjoying their time in Sodom and Gomorrah, while he, the artist, brought meaning to the existing condition through his art.

In 1930, Ellington published an essay expressing ideas that were the culmination of his time at the Cotton Club. The composer noted that he was working on a project (eventually to become “Creole Rhapsody”) that would chronicle the history of his race in sound, explaining that he was “engaged on a rhapsody unhampered by any musical form in which [the intention is] to portray the experience of the races in America in a syncopated idiom.” The work, he added, would consist of “four or five movements… I am putting all that I have learned into the hope that I will have achieved something really worthwhile in the literature of music, and that an authentic record of my race written by a member of it shall be placed on the record.”

All of this while working for gangsters.

T.J. English

T.J. English is the author of Dangerous Rhythms: Jazz and the Underworld, published this year by William Morrow/HarperCollins. He has also written eight other non-fiction books, including Havana Nocturne, Paddy Whacked and The Westies. Four of his books have been New York Times best sellers and four have been nominated for an Edgar Award in the category of Best Fact Crime. As a journalist, his work has been published in numerous national publications on many subjects, including jazz, and most especially Latin jazz, a lifelong passion.